The story of Jesus and Nicodemus is a popular one. I was raised in a church that taught this story almost every year in Sunday school, so I either heard or taught it until I graduated high school and moved away to attend university. But there are specific nuances in the text that make this story near to my heart.
The story goes that Jesus is stirring up a following early in His ministry, challenging pharisaical legalism and turning heads all around Israel. Nicodemus, a Pharisee (a Jew well-educated in the Law) and ruler of the Jews, came to meet Jesus in the night for clarification. He says that the rest of the leaders recognize that Jesus is a teacher sent from God because of the signs He does, and Jesus responds by telling him that he must be “born again” in order to see the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is essential to Jewish thought and religion. It’s what the Jews hope for. It’s the time when God sends a Messiah king who will lead Israel to prosperity and perfection. It is central, always on the minds of the Jews, because they long to be out from under the oppression of the Roman Empire and reestablished to dominance in the world as the apple of God’s eye.
This makes it all the more confusing for Nicodemus.
He only said to Jesus that everyone can see that Jesus is a teacher sent from God. And Jesus responds with an ultimatum about whether Nicodemus will see the kingdom of God – the thing that the Jews eagerly wait for.
And Nicodemus has no idea what Jesus is talking about.
Nicodemus, an older man, asks Jesus, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Valid questions. Jesus’ ultimatum is pretty cryptic. So these clarifying questions from Nicodemus make sense.
Jesus responds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.'”
Nicodemus is still lost.
And Jesus knows it.
But, in reality, Nicodemus should have actually understood that. It’s really quite simple. What Jesus is telling Nicodemus is that his Jewishness comes from the flesh. Nicodemus’ mother and father were Jewish, his culture was Jewish, he was circumcised into Judaism, he was raised Jewish, he is a teacher in Judaism, he is Jewish. But being Jewish doesn’t mean that he is a part of God’s kingdom.
Jesus is referencing here the circumcision of the heart. Jesus acknowledges the initial birth of the physical body, but He requires a new spiritual birth for life in the eternal kingdom.
This is where it gets personal.
I grew up in church, was baptized in the church, I myself taught Sunday school and was a camp counselor. But despite all those things, I could very well not be reborn spiritually. I must put off all the things that tie me to this world, and seek Jesus and a friendship and deep intimacy with Him – a completely different paradigm of living compared to the rest of the world – so that I can live forever with Him.
Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. But he understood enough that he knew he had to continue listening. That’s why, when Jesus was crucified, Nicodemus is recorded to be one of the people who took down His body and laid it in the tomb.
Nicodemus learned that being raised in a Jewish environment and doing Jewish things doesn’t make you someone who will see all the promises of God fulfilled. In order for that, you have to be born again and live a new life by trusting in God and His Holy Spirit.
Then you will see the kingdom of God.